“It’s 120 per cent fake,” Professor Yuan Long Ping (82), hailed as the father of ‘hybrid rice’ in China, had fumed last week in reaction to the claim that five farmers from Bihar had all individually grown more rice per hectare than the ‘world record’ of 19.4 tonnes per hectare in China—the best figure being 22.4 tonnes. He would believe the claim, he said, only if the record was repeated.
He had reasons to be sceptical. With average yield being 6.5 tonnes per hectare in China and only 3.3 tonnes in India, it was certainly too good to be true. Moreover, the claim dated back to 2011 but had just been validated by the international community of scientists. Prof Yuan had also examined photographs of the crop and found the grains to be deficient. And one Bihar farmer was quoted by some reports as saying that they had very little sunshine in 2011, which the professor pointed out was essential for a good crop.
Even more importantly, it had taken him 40 years of research and fieldwork to achieve the world record in China. But the farmers in Bihar had taken to the System of Rice Intensification (SRI) for the first time in 2010-11.
Multinational seed corporations, rice research institutes funded by the World Bank and scientists have been struggling for the past several decades to improve the yield, without much success. But SRI, which was first initiated in 1983 by a French Jesuit priest in Madagascar, seems to have finally achieved a breakthrough and without much assistance from them either.
Officials in Bihar brush aside the criticism from China. “There was a stream of scientists from India and abroad, but no Chinese scientist visited Nalanda to examine the claim,” says Rajiv Ranjan, a young agriculture graduate posted in Nalanda. “The world record was set on a demonstration plot and measured before both scientists and farmers.” Ranjan has now written to Prof Yuan and explained the details.
Dr Norman Uphoff of Cornell University goes on to elaborate, “These results were achieved with hybrid varieties which derive from Yuan’s own innovation of hybridising rice, considered for decades by most rice scientists to be impossible.” Adds Amir Kassam of the Food and Agriculture Organisation, “Go to the fields and see the evidence.”
Nitish Kumar—not the Bihar chief minister, but a farmer with a land holding of just over an acre—told Outlook that the last few years had made a definite difference. “Earlier I used to struggle to feed even four people. But now I am comfortable feeding eight,” he said. Teacher and farmer Farrukh Nadim echoes the claim. “The new technique has certainly doubled, even trebled, the yield and farmers who could barely afford a bicycle are now seen on motorcycles. The prosperity is very visible.” Expectedly, land prices too have skyrocketed in the district.
As a technique, SRI requires much less water and does not use chemical fertilisers or GM seeds. Since every kilo of rice has traditionally required 4,000-5,000 litres of water, a 20 to 30 per cent of water saved is considered a major leap forward indeed. Being labour-intensive, the technique has been dismissed as “a waste of time” in much of the Western world. But in the populous rice-growing areas in Asia, where the average plot size is often less than a hectare, it promises to be nothing short of revolutionary.
SRI, as Louisiana State University professor emeritus Dr Manjit Kang told Outlook in an e-mail, involves transplanting very young seedlings, much younger than used in the traditional system; placing only one germinating seed in the field instead of bunching them together; keeping the soil just wet and not flooding it with water; and keeping the seeds equidistant between and within rows so that each seed gets its share of air, moisture and sunshine.
With rice being the staple of half the world, we may just have seen the beginning of the next green revolution.